Every year my family goes overseas to celebrate Chinese New Year. And I don’t mean just my immediate family, I mean my entire extended family who live in various parts of Malaysia. So far I’ve been with them to Vietnam, Thailand (and the borders of Laos and Burma), and this year our destination was Hangzhou, China.
Firstly, let me say I am at least a little bit aware of what a privilege it is to have such wealthy relatives that they can afford to collectively travel the globe. I’m honoured to be considered part of the family, even though I live so far away in an entirely different culture and see them so infrequently.
But guilt aside, China was awesome. It was not without its challenges though, the hardest (for me) being the cold and the toilets. I was personally horrified by the toilets, which generally involved squatting over a ceramic hole, often full from the previous user, and then doing your business. If you were lucky there would be a hose to wash yourself with afterwards, but there was a distinct lack of flushing and toilet paper in most public bathrooms I visited. To survive I held it, no matter how desperate I got, until we reached a Western-style toilet at a hotel. You’d be surprised how long you can hold it when you need to.
The cold was less disgusting but not much easier to deal with. Although it was often so cold it was painful (in one desperate moment at a urinal, watching all that wasted steam, I briefly contemplated peeing on my hands, just to feel warmth again), I eventually learned that it’s not about how many layers you’re wearing to insulate heat, it’s about how much heat you’re insulating. Doing light exercise was the best way of maintaining body heat, though there was the risk of doing too much exertion and working up a sweat, which would eventually turn to ice cold water clinging to your body for hours (and, as legendary Survivorman Les Stroud taught me, that can lead to hypothermia. Not that I was likely to be affected- after the incident on Kota Kinabalu where I nearly froze to death, I carried a space blanket on me all throughout China). As a person who experiences a mild circulatory disorder, I suffered greatly. My brother taunted me by sleeping in shorts and a tee shirt, while I would wear my thermal underwear, long-sleeved pyjamas, a jacket, gloves, socks and beanie, and still lie in bed shivering for the majority of the night.
But the cold was also the best part of China, particularly when I learned how to create more body heat on demand. The main root of my excitement was because it was forecasted to snow. My uncle (who had already been there for a week) even called in advance to tell me it was snowing right at that moment, and I was about 24 hours away from joining him. Despite huge anticipation, it was not snowing when I arrived, nor the next day after that. Each night I went to bed hoping those tiny magical ice crystals would start to fall, and each morning when I woke up I was disappointed. I was starting to think that maybe I’d missed out on the snow the day previous, but then as we were exploring a temple on one of the islands of the Lake of One Thousand Islands, tiny white somethings began to drift down from nowhere in particular. They were like leaves, or perhaps feathers, but I guess what they were most like was snow. And I went nuts.
I ran around screaming “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!!”, catching them on my arms, my hands, my face, my tongue, my water bottle so I could drink them, just laughing idiotically and running around in circles, oblivious to the tourists around me. When the euphoria wore off (a little), I sat down underneath the grand stone archways of an ill-used path leading to something called the “Tranquility Gardens” and tried to meditate. I was expecting every cell in my body to hum from the excitement of feeling snow falling upon my face, but I surprised myself by achieving a state of deep peace and contentment almost instantaneously. Until, a few seconds later, my young cousins (between 4 and 11 years old) noticed me and started marching around me making lots of noise and giggles.
The snow fell steadily over the remainder of the day, light and beautiful at first, relentless and heavy by late afternoon. Each flake was perfectly delicate and infinitely intricate, the individual crystal branches disintegrating the moment they touched something that wasn’t as cold as snow. My brother, a snowy veteran for an Australian, said it was the lightest, gentlest snow he’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but do taiji over and over, feeling the lightest kisses on my face, laughing at the white coating to my hair, then getting progressively wetter but no less happy.
China did, of course, hold more than weather. We arrived on the eve of Chinese New Year, a celebration that lasts a fortnight and changes dates depending on the lunar (rather than solar) calendar. We were eating a very late rather superfluous second-dinner when midnight finally clocked around. I had been containing my excited desire to yell “Gong xi fa cai!” as soon as the clock hit twelve, but the Chinese beat me to it by drowning me out with fireworks. As the inventors of gunpowder, I shouldn’t really have been surprised by just how many fireworks the Chinese possess and use liberally; practically every day I was there involved finding paper remnants of spent explosives or jumping at the sudden burst dozens of fire crackers.
Our tourguide spoke excellent Mandarin, but unfortunately only a handful of words in English. To my brother’s chagrin, I attempted to brush up on my horrendously accented Mandarin, but mostly we sat quietly enjoying the views. It didn’t occur to many of our relatives to translate for us, and I didn’t really want to cling dependently to any of them when they were so engrossed in what the guide was saying, but I can’t help but feel I might have gotten the short end of the stick when they translated several sentences into a few simple words.
Nevertheless, we visited the substantially beautiful mansion of a Chinese hero who single-handedly funded the government’s movement to stay an independent province. We visited a market where Eugene bought a “Chinese oboe” (which he lost on the flight back) and I bought a Han-style jian (gentleman’s sword), which surprisingly got through customs with barely a wave. We went to the village where a scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed, and it was still remarkably functional despite its age. Eugene and I had a really great adventure getting lost and running through the backstreets to get back to the bus before they left without us. We spent a day sailing on the Lake of One Thousand Islands (which actually had over 3000, depending on how you count the big and small ones) which was very special. I loved being on the ship deck doing taiji almost as much as I enjoyed visiting some of the islands. The islands we went to were largely for climbing to access the viewing platforms, but we came across a number of “hidden treasures”. Watching a dozen eagles (or possibly hawks) fishing by the pier was amazing, as was the temple we visited where snow was falling between the eaves while a Confucius statue looked on knowingly. A shop that specialised in pearls taught us how to tell the difference between fake ones and real ones (something to do with scratching… my limited Mandarin really was a barrier), and in an unlikely stall I bought a collapsible jian for around $5. It turns out these sell for around $80 in Australia, and my taiji class had just started learning the jian form, so the timing couldn’t have been better- I just wish I had bought stacks of them to share with the dojo.
We visited a famous amusement park which was styled as an ancient Chinese village. There was a blacksmith, actually smithing, a man pounding glutinous rice, magicians, and best of all, four horsemen in armour riding through the narrow streets, banging their swords against their armour and calling to make way. I practically passed out from sheer awesome. Against my will I was tricked into going into the haunted house with my three teenaged cousins, and being the self-proclaimed coward I am, made little attempt at comforting the girls as I tried not to freak the hell out myself. In one room, where disembodied arms hung from the ceiling, Caysin (our formerly fearless leader) actually balked, and after a pause, stammered that she dare not go in for fear of the arms dropping on her. Out of nowhere, some kind of lion-hearted hero in my skin pushed through the door and the three girls clung to me screaming as I led them to safety, prepared to defend us with my legs alone should anything attack.
Back in the relative safety of the village, I bought some trinkets from the various stalls and a hot chocolate drink which I enjoyed with my cousins while we settled down in the theatre. The show we were scheduled to see was called The Legend of Romance, and was a fantastic display of light and choreography, telling a complex story I didn’t quite understand. But in one battle scene, a Chinese war hero burst from the flames to save a baby, and then dramatically strapped it to his chest while he fought off half a dozen spearmen. I still laugh when I think about it.
But hands down, the best part of all China was the Huangshan mountains. Meaning the yellow mountains, the one we visited was (I think) known as the Emperor mountain and the “stone pine tree mountain”. What they meant by this was that pine trees grew out of the stone floors and walls of the mountain, without any apparent nutrition or soil, often at absurd angles and defying all logic. We hiked 13km up to our hotel where we would stay the night, and during that time I had many adventures in the snow. It has a remarkably satisfying crunch underfoot, and the way you sink right through it when you jump on it makes it seem as if it’s empty (which, technically speaking, it mostly is). It tastes like plain ice kacang (THOUGH DON’T EAT THE YELLOW SNOW, which I was surprised to discover, and accidentally step in). Despite wearing metal spiked treads on my boots, I slipped more than anyone else, out of ignorance (when snow melts and re-freezes, it doesn’t turn back into snow, it turns into rock solid ice. And when icicles drip, they leave puddles of ice, not water), and twice out of exhaustion as I carried my tired 4yo cousin up and down the stairs. But one of those times was when my mother was leaning on me for support, and I actually pulled her down as I fell. Fortunately I breakfell and she landed relatively unhurt on my arm, but it was horribly embarrassing for me.
The kids made a snowman (which I missed out on while I was babysitting Yi Xin) and we had a pretty substantial snowball fight. Although I am a pacifist and didn’t want to dominate children by assaulting them with snowballs, I was finally goaded into retaliating against my 11yo cousin Yi Fei. Normally I possess a horrendous throwing arm, but fate somehow replaced it with a biomechanically perfect snowball launching machine, complete with complex equation-solving devices to calculate momentum, distance and lead. Despite the fact he was running for cover, I landed the most perfect throw I have ever done in my life against the side of his face. Unfortunately, the snowball didn’t explode into a light and fluffy powder- it bounced off him. There Yi Fei and I learned another important lesson about snow: never use a pre-made snowball. Yes, it’s exciting to see someone’s left a stash of ammunition which you don’t have to waste time forming yourself, but chances are it’s melted and re-frozen either a little or a lot, and it turns into a ball of solid ice. He staggered away, dazed and dignified as he cried silently and I apologised profusely. I spent the rest of that trip breaking apart any pre-made ice/painballs I came across so others would not make the same mistake.
The views from the mountaintop were truly beautiful. A very small handful of us climbed to the peak at sunset, and a lower peak at sunrise to enjoy the view. At the very top, admist the very slippery ice, I slowly and carefully performed a sequence of Feng Quan- “mountain top boxing”, a synthesis form between taijiquan, baguazhang, xingyiquan and Shaolin gong fu. It is one of my happiest memories.
And that was China! I will remember it fondly.